Sunday, August 27, 2023

What part of “no evidence” does this child welfare “scholar” not understand

Meet the "scholar" who is turning the concept of "evidence based" upside-down
(Photo by Nick Youngson,

This post quotes from many tweets. I have not tried to correct the typos in those tweets.

Have you noticed something new about the “child welfare” establishment lately? You know, the wonderful people who created the child welfare surveillance state that tears apart at least 200,000 families a year and subjects more than half of all Black children to traumatic child abuse investigations based on reports that are almost always false.  The tone of their writing seems to be increasingly desperate. 

After 50 years of health terrorism – misrepresenting the nature and scope of a problem, in this case, child abuse, in the name of “raising awareness,” people are catching on.  People are noticing that all that misery inflicted on millions of children in the name of stopping child abuse fatalities has done nothing to stop child abuse fatalities.  And they’re noticing that the misery is inflicted almost exclusively on people who are poor and disproportionately on people who are nonwhite.  I wouldn’t say people aren’t buying the fearmongering anymore, but it’s getting harder to sell. 

Among those sounding increasingly frantic is Richard Barth, former dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland.  Barth, you may recall, is the one who declared that – unlike any other profession in America, child welfare is 100% free of racial bias!   

The evidence, including study after study, says otherwise. 

Perhaps that’s why Barth now is trying to stand the whole concept of evidence on its head. 

This can be seen most recently in his response to an op-ed column in the Hartford Courant by Prof. Kelley Fong, author of the forthcoming book Investigating Families. In that op-ed, she writes: 

Research finds that following high-profile child fatalities, child welfare agencies respond by removing more children from their homes in a “foster care panic.” There’s no evidence, however, that this makes children safer. Instead, such panics leave more children and their parents traumatized by family separation, and spread child welfare workers even thinner. 

Barth responded on his increasingly shrill feed on The Site Formerly Known as Twitter. (No, I will not be linking to it or anything else Barth has written. There’s enough here for anyone to find it if they are so inclined.  But I’ve reprinted the tweet in full, pausing for analysis.)  Let’s have a look, line-by-line. He begins with this: 

Nice to see acknowledgment of the many ways that child welfare services do help support families. 

That’s sort of like saying “what about Officer Friendly?” in response to issues of police brutality. Of course, sometimes individual police officers do good things. That does not justify stop-and-frisk and choking Black people to death.  And the very fact that in order to – maybe – get help, families have to go to what is really a police force adds enormous stress and drives many away from seeking help. 

Misreading We Were Once a Family 

Barth similarly misunderstood We Were Once a Family, Roxanna Asgarian’s brilliant book about Black children who were adopted to death by their white foster/adoptive parents.  Almost every reader understands what that book is all about: the racism that led to these children being taken from extended families who could have raised them and the racism that prompted family police agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies) to ignore signs of abuse by the white savior foster / adoptive parents. 

But not Richard Barth. In a commentary for The Imprint about Asgarian’s book, he can’t bring himself even to mention the fact that the children were Black and the murderers were white. And his only solutions are more study and ramping up constant surveillance of all adoptive families. 

Now, back to Barth’s tweet, as he switches gears and discusses foster-care panics: 

 I agree that the standard of removal should not change, markedly, after a child death 

So, how much is “markedly”?  Often there is a 10% increase in a single year.  Is that “markedly”?  Sometimes it’s 20% or 30%.  In the worst example I know of, Florida in 1999, removals skyrocketed 50% in a single year.

More important, where is the evidence that every time there is a high-profile tragedy there should be any increase in the number of children torn from their homes?  It doesn’t exist.  

That does not stop Barth, who continues: 

--these deaths and serious injuries should be factored in to decision making before then. 

So does that mean we all should be tearing apart families at higher rates to begin with?  Again, where is the evidence?  We tear apart vastly more families than we did 50 years ago.  But, as is discussed further below, there is no evidence that child abuse deaths have decreased. 

And now we get to the heart of the matter. Says Barth: 

But not sure what it means that no evidence shows that removals after high profile deaths don't make children safer... 

Really, Prof. Barth?  You don’t know what “no evidence” means?  It means: No. Evidence. 

In fact, no evidence means pretty much what you said yourself in the very next sentence: 

I'd surprised if there is evidence that shows anything about the impact of subsequent removals after failure to protect children. Is there? 

Actually, there is some evidence about this.  It is, indeed, limited, but it does not support Barth’s position. 

In one sense the relative lack of evidence is a good thing.  Though each is the worst imaginable tragedy, child abuse deaths are as rare as they are horrifying.  So in all but the largest jurisdictions, they may rise or fall due to random chance.  And even in those large jurisdictions, there are other confounding variables, including bias in determining if a given death was due to, say, neglect, or an accident. 

But in those very large jurisdictions, I have never seen a foster-care panic followed by a decline in child abuse deaths.  Several times, there have been increases. 

Correlation is not causation.  But the best people like Barth can say is there is no evidence one way or the other.  Yet this is how he makes his case to maintain the status quo:  There’s no evidence foster care panics make children safer, but you can't prove they don’t! So apparently, we shouldn’t worry too much about them.  In another tweet, responding to Prof. Fong, who cited family defense attorneys who used statistics from government agencies, Barth doubled down: 

Hmm. Public defenders arguing from single trends don't give me any confidence. It's time for public defenders, and attorneys, and CW commentators, in general, to team up with scientists before drawing conclusions. I see that lawyers have now tweeted out your claims that there is no evidence. Sigh. 

Darn those pesky lawyers!  If Barth wants to convince people that it’s wrong to claim there’s no evidence all he has to do is provide the evidence.  But he can’t.  Because there’s no evidence! 

A failed defense of mandatory reporting 

In an opinion column he co-authored for JAMA Pediatrics Barth again turned the concept of “evidence-based” on its head to justify mandatory child abuse reporting laws. 

Those laws were deployed more than 50 years ago with no evidence base at all. There were no studies beforehand to see if they would work.  Now that research finally has been done, those studies show mandatory reporting backfires, scaring families away from seeking help and overloading workers so they have less time to find the relatively few children in real danger. 

So what does Barth say?  Keep mandatory reporting – but “Research is needed to find optimal approaches to certain circumstances…” 

So to review: Here is the traditional definition of “evidence-based”: First you come up with an idea.  Then you test the idea with rigorous studies.  If the studies show it works, then you deploy. 

Here’s the Richard Barth approach when it involves something he likes: Deploy mandatory reporting with no testing.  After 50+ years, when zero evidence says it works and the studies done so far say it’s harmful – then do more studies. 

Notably, even child welfare establishment types are becoming more reluctant to buy what Barth keeps trying to sell. 

That JAMA Pediatrics opinion column was followed by a comment from none other than Dr. Richard Krugman. Krugman is the very personification of the child welfare establishment.  He used to be director of the C. Henry Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect. Here is his comment, in full: 

This is a thoughtful commentary stressing the need for balance in our views of Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies. As one who has worked in this field for the past 40 years, I agree with Dubowitz and Barth that just ablating CPS agencies is the wrong approach. BUT, we now have 40 years of experience with this approach and have made no progress in reducing the mortality from physical abuse of children (decades with 1500-2500 children dying annually). What is missing from CPS are data on the outcomes for children and families of the "services" being provided to them. What is needed are carefully designed studies testing alternative approaches to community child protection efforts that can tell us in the next decade whether those approaches lead to better outcomes for children and families that what we are doing now. Doing the same thing for 40 years that doesn't seem (or can't be shown) to be working was someone's definition of insanity. [Emphasis in original.] 

Alas, like Barth, Krugman can’t bring himself to actually call for not doing things that are not evidence-based.  But for someone like Richard Krugman to offer even this genteel critique, with its implication that Barth’s approach may be, um,  lacking in sanity, means that extremists like Barth are becoming increasingly isolated. 

Barth isn’t just trying to redefine evidence-based.  When it suits him, he tries to redefine foster care. 

Consider this bizarre 2021 exchange on Twitter between Barth and Prof. Alan Dettlaff: 

Dettlaff tweets:

 In April 2020, Cornelius Fredericks threw a sandwich at another resident of the institution where he was placed. He was then killed by staff members who restrained him until he could no longer breathe. This is what happens to children in foster care. 

Barth then replies: 

This is tragic but did not occur in foster care. (This was a residential center.) So it can't fit your sloganeering about what happens to children in foster care. Lazy thinking amd imprecise language wont help us serve children better. 

Hey Prof. Barth, have you told the federal government?  All these years, they’ve been under the misimpression that residential treatment is foster care!  For some reason, the federal database known as the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System has a whole category for “institutions” Similarly, this excellent database from ChildTrends includes “Group Home or Institution” under “Placement settings and stability for children in foster care” [Emphasis added.]  

And apparently, the entire federal government got its regulations wrong, too.  Because Federal regulations define foster care as 

24 hour substitute care for all children placed away from their parents or guardians and for whom the State agency has placement and care responsibility.  

So, Prof. Barth, tell us again about “lazy thinking.”


Sometime today, Prof. Barth responded to having his tweets criticized: